TIME

What Historians Get Wrong About World War I

On the eve of the Great War's centennial, many still get a great deal wrong about the conflict's outbreak: the world did not blunder into mass bloodletting by accident

World War I broke out precisely 100 years ago, in early August 1914. Late the previous June, a terrorist loosely associated with Serbian Intelligence had assassinated the heir to the Austrian throne in Sarajevo. Not everyone grasped the event’s potential significance. The local American consul did not think it worth reporting by telegram. Yet scarcely five weeks later, Europe’s major powers embarked upon what became the most destructive war in history. Some 10 million soldiers and 7 million civilians perished. By 1914, Europe and its offshoots produced three-quarters of global manufacturing output. Four years later, that prosperity and the optimism it engendered around the world had disappeared.

Is it plausible that such a tragedy could develop from inadvertence or, as a current best-seller in Germany contends, that the Europeans “sleepwalked” their way into war? History suggests that few nations risk a life-or-death collision unless their leaders believe that the national interest commands it.

The spark in 1914 ignited among the atavistic blood feuds of the Balkans. Still, the animosities of client nationalities do not always escalate to wider confrontation. As the Ottoman Empire declined over the 19th century, the emerging rival Balkan states fought to extend their frontiers. Two local wars took place in 1912-13 and were temporarily resolved through intervention by the British foreign secretary. The Austro-Hungarian decision-makers correctly understood that Serbian ambitions to unite all South Slavs under their control posed an enduring menace, but they divided on how to respond. Some wanted not only to eliminate the Serbian threat through war, but also to expand into other contiguous areas. Others opposed measures that might bring more Slavs within the borders of the empire.

The German government broke the deadlock in Vienna. Not only did it issue a “blank check”; it insisted that Austria’s credibility depended upon its willingness to fight. Berlin’s aggressive stance transformed a regional quarrel into a general war. Repudiating Bismarck’s cautious diplomacy, the elites of Kaiser Wilhelm’s generation thought that their Reich deserved a place in the sun on a par with Britain and America. Given the country’s explosive economic growth, they felt entitled to dominate the Continent. Opinion leaders embraced the Social Darwinist view that the “races” stood in conflict. If they failed to engage in the struggle, supposedly they would decline.

The Germans also believed in the supremacy of military to civilian authorities. Once the army decided, the politicos would have to follow. The generals had worked up the Schlieffen Plan for a two-front war. That plan required invading neutral Belgium and defeating France before Russia could mobilize. The army pressed for action: five years hence the Russians might have built a railroad system that made execution of the Schlieffen Plan impossible.

The documents indicate that Reich Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg as well as his military seized this opportunity to provoke a Continental war. They hoped that Britain would stay out, but were prepared to roll the dice. Other powers had foreign-policy aspirations too, but historians’ investigations have not turned up evidence that any of them wanted a general war. Once hostilities began, Bethmann-Hollweg stood ready with a shopping list of war aims that would consolidate German supremacy over Western and Eastern Europe alike. Although the German wartime leadership never embraced Hitler’s racial outlook, its specific territorial goals looked disconcertingly like a dress rehearsal for World War II. What’s more, the German “way of war” involved ignoring the strictures of international law, which made their initial assaults seem worse.

Reacting against the imputation of war guilt, the German Foreign Office carried out a sophisticated campaign in the 1920s to misrepresent the war’s origins. Many Americans were taken in. They came to believe that their participation had lacked a purpose. The view took hold that World War I had resulted from misunderstandings, disembodied forces such as militarism, imperialism, and nationalism, or from alliance politics unmediated by international organization.

Those interpretations made little sense then, and they make even less sense today. Disembodied forces do not cause war in the absence of human agency. Nor do the working of alliances. The practical alternative to a balance of power is an imbalance of power. And while political scientists feared during the early Cold War that a nuclear conflagration might erupt owing to miscalculation, the balance of power helped keep the peace.

Half a century ago, the German scholar Fritz Fischer got access to hidden archives under Soviet control and laid out his country’s 1914 war aims in detail. Crucially, Fischer explained why a compromise peace of the sort proposed by President Woodrow Wilson before America’s entry into the conflict remained illusory. German rulers retained their original annexationist appetites throughout. That interpretation persuaded most historians until recently.

In the spate of books now appearing on the centennial of the war, however, a fresh cohort of historians has curiously reverted to the theory that nations on each side blundered into mass bloodletting accidently. They do so largely by ignoring Fischer’s findings. Perhaps, as Voltaire remarked, history is only a pack of lies that the living play on the dead. And yet in this case the Western Allies had good reason to defend themselves. Most international quarrels can be resolved through prudent accommodation; only in rare circumstances does a compelling reason for battle emerge. To comprehend why this particular conflict figured as a necessary war, where the stakes seemed sufficiently high for a whole generation to endure four miserable years in the trenches, it is essential to get the story right.

Stephen A. Schuker is professor of history at the University of Virginia. He is the author, among other works, of The End of French Predominance in Europe andAmerican ‘Reparations’ to Germany, 1919-33.

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